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7-08-2015, 20:14

Military and other instructive manuals

Several texts dealing with military matters have been translated into English, and their varying degrees of indebtedness to ancient tactical manuals assessed. Essentially, the Byzantines borrowed extensively but made adjustments to fit current circumstances, with Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas issuing fresh prescriptions on, for example, equipping, training and deploying heavy cavalry and other, lighter categories of cavalrymen.58 Another work, on siege warfare, makes classical techniques of building and operating siege-engines readily visualisable and applicable for present-day operations against the Arabs.59 These texts mostly date from the decades following Constantine VII’s reign, registering the switch towards more sustained offensive warfare on enemy territory. The change is signalled in the preface to the manual on Skirmishing commissioned by Nikephoros II: the tactics prescribed here ‘might not find much application in the eastern regions at the present time’, now that the Muslims are being driven back; but a written record is desirable, in case ‘Christians need this knowledge’ again, and have to contend with raiders ranging freely across AsiaMinor.60 Another shift in priorities features in Campaign organization, a work envisaging warfare in Bulgarian territory and assuming that the emperor will be in command. It probably dates from the earlier part of Basil II’s reign.61 Similar provision for new circumstances is made in Nikephoros Ouranos’ Taktika, written while he was military governor of Antioch in the early eleventh century. Ancient military texts together with Leo VI’s and Nikephoros Phokas’ treatises are supplemented by chapters on, for example, cavalry warfare and sieges. These chapters, which have been expertly translated, cover ‘the full range of contemporary Byzantine military operations’ in the region of occupied Syria.62 Prescriptive handbooks could be more discursive. One such, conventionally termed the Strategikon of Kekaumenos, we have noted above (p. 67). This contains edifying maxims, tips on household management and social relationships, and counsel about serving as a judge in the provinces. Kekaumenos’ bias is, however, towards officers’ training: he had himself been a senior commander in the mid-eleventh-century army. An English translation is in preparation, supplementing the Russian translation.63 No precise analogy to Kekaumenos’ work is known. But it survives in just one manuscript. Similar sets of instructions could well have been composed by commanders or civilian officials, without the good fortune of manuscript survival. In fact, comparable stylistic traits, rhetorical devices and didactic tone characterise some of the military treatises discussed above; they are also discernible in Skylitzes’ chronicle. Kekaumenos dismisses unnamed rivals in stressing that his work stems from ‘authentic experience’, presenting ‘things not in any other Strategikon or any other book’.64 At the same time he presupposes readers’ familiarity with heroes such as Scipio Africanus and Belisarius. His work opens a window on under-chronicled Byzantine officialdom, on men educated in grammar and rhetoric, but not to the highest level. Opinionated and idiosyncratic Kekaumenos may have been, but his value-system was probably common to many of the empire’s servants. They were interested in relating recent developments to the classical past, preoccupied with issues of technique and policy, yet also disposed to pass useful knowledge, topped with pieties and worldly wisdom, on to their juniors in age or status.65 This political culture could act as a bonding mechanism, providing middling officials scattered across outposts of empire with a common stock of know-how, anecdotes and semi-learned allusions. A certain esprit de corps was thereby fostered. But this was no closed body. The military manuals and other practical works imply concern to introduce newcomers or successors to the systems they will have to operate.Most also place presentday norms and practices within the framework of the ancients, still deemed past-masters. The very fact that the counsel was set down in writing suggests that processes of training and dissemination went on beyond the confines of formal education. The attempts at spelling out military techniques in plain words, simplifying classical terminology, also bespeak ambitions for learning, for self-improvement, on the part of individuals coming from outside the gilded circles. In other words, the instruction manuals themselves constitute evidence of the means whereby the upwardly mobile could hone their military and other skills, gain a certain polish, and ultimately rise higher in the empire’s service, especially during its era of expansion, the tenth and eleventh centuries. They would need Greek to understand the manuals and most would be Byzantine-born. But individuals among neighbouring elites, or visitors to the empire, could manage some Greek, written as well as spoken. Didactic texts would have been of use to, for example, the young Norman noble who learnt not only Greek at court but also veterinary medicine for horses and birds in the mid-eleventh century.66 Paradoxical as it might seem, texts covering military matters could become available to outsiders. In fact a section in Kekaumenos’ Strategikon directly addresses a toparch, a local potentate in the borderlands. He is advised to be wary of the emperor’s blandishments, paying just one visit to Constantinople if he values his independence. The fate of an incautious toparch is recounted, by way of warning, and another section features the wiles of one of Kekaumenos’ own ancestors, a toparch in the Armenian borderlands who outwitted imperial commanders.67 Thus a senior military officer could proudly recall Armenian family roots and envisage sympathetically a contemporary toparch’s viewpoint. There is no reason to doubt Kekaumenos’ overriding loyalty towards the emperor, or that his prime self-identification was Roman. But Kekaumenos had not wholly relinquished ties with another culture, an alternative identity, and in that sense he exemplifies the multiple or mutable personae of many serving in the empire’s higher echelons, especially the armed forces. His ‘life and opinions’, while personal to the point of idiosyncracy, do much to explain Byzantium’s sinews of governance (see above, pp. 15–16). Kekaumenos’ injunctions, with other more technical treatises, are now becoming available to Anglophones; in reading these works, the newcomer to Byzantium can gain a direct impression of what it was to make oneself a Roman.